YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


'Last Temptation': Revelations on an Old Story

October 13, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith i s a free-lance writer who regularly writes about film for The Times Orange County Edition. and

Church leaders, from the Vatican to the fundamentalist Bible Belt, have been wary of the movies for years, especially when it comes to screen depictions of Jesus Christ.

So when Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" was nearing release in 1988, the religious flak from around the world was predictable.

It had happened before. On the eve of the premiere of Pier Paolo Pasolini's "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" in 1966, the Vatican told good Catholics to avoid this offering from a confessed atheist. Ironically, the church came to admire the film, an earthy yet uplifting telling. Pasolini was absolved.

Not so Scorsese; there was no forgiveness as his picture opened. The New York filmmaker, known for such grimy American wonders as "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver," was even more loudly condemned, even though "The Last Temptation of Christ" is one of the most honest and intriguing presentations of Christ's history.

Primarily, what angered the devout about the movie (which screens Friday night as part of UC Irvine's "Cinema Potpourri" series) was an imaginative sequence depicting Jesus' life if he had not been crucified. Scorsese, staying true to the Nikos Kazantzakis novel on which the picture is based, shows Jesus having sex, making children, getting cranky, growing old and, all in all, behaving like any normal fellow.

Scorsese, in the end, provides a more reverential vision of Christ, who, after realizing he's been deceived by the devil in this earthly incarnation, begs to go ahead with his date on the cross. He's restored as the Messiah, and the spread of Christianity is set. But that didn't satisfy most religious circles, particularly those accustomed to having their heavenly symbols on a lofty scale.

The early warnings on the film were provoked by circulation of the script, which made it clear that Scorsese was planning a different approach. But his reputation as a director of realistic, street-aware films also figured in the theological worry. How much violence would there be? Nudity? Would everyone have a Bowery accent? There was plenty to be concerned over.

"The Last Temptation of Christ" may be Scorsese's most ephemeral and metaphorically heavy movie, but he hasn't forsaken his usual hard-nosed style. His Christ (played by Willem Dafoe with the confident intensity of a Hell's Kitchen gangster turned community activist) is so troubled by God's interest in him that he first thinks he's hounded by Satan. His reluctance to play along is so deep that he creates crucifixion crosses for the Romans to, as he tells us, "defy God."

Scorsese excels through scenes like that. He invigorates the familiar by presenting Jesus in a frank, humanistic way. Kazantzakis wanted readers to see Christ as a mortal confused over his own spirituality, who eventually becomes divine only by accepting the demands faith places on him. Scorsese connects with that, and it's clear that being the chosen one is no party of healing the sick and feeding the multitudes. Being God's messenger is a hard, psyche-shattering business.

At more than 160 minutes, Scorsese spends a lot of time making that point, and it's the picture's most obvious weakness. The magnitude of the story slows Scorsese down, gets him to plod; far from irreverent, his respect prompts him to agonize over the details, frequently losing the visual impact that energized his other, albeit more excitable and violent, movies.

His cast also takes getting used to. When Harvey Keitel, a Scorsese regular, shows up early on as Judas with a barely hidden East Coast accent, we hold our breath for a while, half expecting him to throttle a Roman or two while cussing like a Manhattan cabbie. Dafoe, as well as Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton and David Bowie in supporting roles, seem strange early on, and you wonder why Scorsese didn't take a tip from Pasolini and pick unknowns for these archetypal characters.

But the story's grandeur, told in such a fresh, complex way, eventually erodes the doubts. Scorsese, by giving his hero more dimension than we've come to expect in any biblical representation, creates someone we know. This is a Christ you could run into on a street corner or at a coffee shop, a guy with unsettling charisma and a flock of nice ideas.

* What: Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ."

* When: Friday, Oct. 14, at 7:45 p.m.

* Where: UC Irvine Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south to Campus Drive and take a left. Turn right on Bridge Road and take it into the campus.

* Wherewithal: $2 to $4.

* Where to call: (714) 856-5588.


Inside Monkey Zetterland

Los Angeles Times Articles